Well, what’s really the whole toss about bloody poetry, anyway? Must it “sing” to us, as Shelley and his cavorting concubines insist, or is Wordsworth’s poetry nothing more than a “slap of cold fish in the face”? The place is Lake Geneva, the year is 1816, and Howard Brenton’s study recreates that famous, unbridled friendship between Lord Byron and Mr Shelley. The play concerns itself with romanticism, and the pair and their (appropriately dubbed) “ball girls” question the very nature of poetry, of dreams, of idealism and personal depravity. Welcome, Oxford, to the O’Reilly and to Romantics behaving badly; a play of playthings, free love, books and red wine.
Caught in the thunderstorm of a “new experiment of living,” the four self-imposed exiles are revived by director James Fennemore in a production that does elaborate textual justice both to its unruly comedy, and to its poignant, tragic undercurrents. Our two main men, Byron – played by Arty Bolour-Froushan – and “Bysshe” Shelley – by Tim Schneider – superbly reconstruct the tension between Byron’s apparent cynicism and the younger man’s passion for all things “feeling”.
“Shakespeare was a little shit”, Byron announces to the room, just a “bugger who wrote a great deal.” Bolour-Froushan swaggers the length of the stage, his gaudy presence demanding the full attention of his audience, as it does the drawing room’s occupants on stage. We cannot ignore Byron, and the audience is left with no doubt as to the sincerity of Lady Caroline’s diary; this is a man who really is “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”
And Schneider matches his fellow protagonist’s polished performance, highlighting the contrast in temperament between the two poets. Stony, cool and reserved at times, and at others, spirited and palpably the younger, erratic Shelley welcomes his hero into the literati. And the female members, fervent Claire Clairemont (Claudia King) and bright-eyed Mary Shelley (Amelia Sparling), are only too willing to oblige. The intimacy between the trio, and later between the quartet, is obvious from the very first glimpse we are given of the stage. The audience filter in to welcoming pastoral strings, Shelley and his women frolicking, lounging, relaxing, in an intimacy that cannot be faked.
Costumed to period dress by Holly Morse, and the stage bolstered only by dusty books, empty bottles and wooden trunks, Glaser’s design is stark and understating. The nautical white backdrop is styled to resemble a main sail, and is apt for a play that leaps across oceans in a matter of minutes. The flexible set design helps the audience to imagine this voyage without any distraction, the lighting acting as the main indicator for place and time. But as well as the simplistic set allowing for a functional scene change, the sail and recordings of waves and storms reminds us of something else. It reminds us of the tempestuous waters that surround any well-intended project, and that romanticism itself is never clean sailing; the apparition of Shelley’s dead wife is always lurking beneath the waters.
It would be hard not to enjoy Fennemore’s revival, and slight technical quibbles don’t detract from this enjoyment. The recordings had the tendency to drown out our protagonists’ voices, and Brenton’s script itself got ever-so-slightly confusing during the last act. But the direction and acting was commendable, the energy high and the action gripping. What’s the whole toss about Bloody Poetry, then? Well, it’s a bloody good piece of theatre, and decisively not like a slap of cold fish in the face.